There is one photograph in Gabriel Orozco: Currents 76, now at the St. Louis Art Museum, that provides a key to understanding Orozco and his art. "Crazy Tourist (Turista Maluco)" shows the aftermath of a marketing day in Brazil: rickety wooden tables, skeletal awning structures, the rich colors of painted boxes and tiled roofs. The market is empty now, there's nothing to buy, the sellers and shoppers have all gone home. But some unseen person has taken the time to place a single orange on top of each one of the otherwise empty tables.
Who would engineer such an absurdity, then photograph it so lovingly, in saturated, Cibachrome hues?
The "crazy tourist" is Orozco himself. Born in Mexico, Orozco, 36, now lives in New York City but has traveled the world, exhibiting and making art in places like Oaxaca and India and Berlin. Orozco is a scavenger and a director. He finds, and sometimes constructs, sophisticated and surprising visual forms in the everyday world, then records those forms with his camera. After looking at Orozco's photographs, you may never look at your own surroundings in the same way again.
"Crazy Tourist" represents the quintessence of Orozco's interests: a random, commonplace scene (the empty market) that is at the same time an extremely subtle work of formalist art (the rhythmic repetition of orange circles, the blue- and rust-colored highlights). It's tempting to claim that Orozco's photographs have bridged that stubborn gap between art and life that has dogged so many artists this century.
If you're not quite convinced, just look at more photographs. "Waiting Chairs," made on Orozco's recent trip to India, shows the interior of a waiting area. Four plastic molded chairs sit, backs against the wall, and hovering above each chair is a soft-edged circle, the result of oil absorbed into the wall from the heads of people who have sat in those chairs, waiting. The scene is mundane and yet evocative -- it wistfully evokes the passage of time and the passage of people. And it's also a beautifully orchestrated series of soft patterns and colors that could stand on its own as an abstract composition. It's art and it's life -- this image fuses the two.
So does "Sand on Table," in a slightly different way. It shows a simple wooden table standing in a sea of sand. On the tabletop, a pile of sand, with neatly sloping sides terminating in peaks, looks like a landscape unto itself -- timeless, ancient and sprawling -- though it is nothing more than a miniature construction, contrasting in every way with the "real" landscape of sand, with its messy footprints and debris, that surrounds it. This orchestrated photograph again blurs the distinction between the representation and the real, or art and life. The same effect couldn't quite be achieved in a sculptural arrangement. Orozco knows this, and so he uses the controlled vision afforded by the photograph to great effect.
Nevertheless, these photographs are informed by a sculptural sensibility, by the forms and arrangements Orozco finds and creates in the three-dimensional world. And though Currents 76 consists exclusively of photographs, Orozco is also well-known worldwide for his sculptural work, in which he visits some of the same artistic territory that he does in these photographs.
Among Orozco's recent sculptures, exhibited in places like New York and London, are "La DS," a physically altered Citroen car that looks normal from the sides (as "normal" as a Citroen can look) but resembles a sleek, retro 1950s rocket from the front; and "Oval Billiard Table," which is missing its pockets, so that any game played upon it promises to be fairly pointless. Sculptures like these are witty and visually jarring, inspired by Orozco's trenchant observations of the forms of everyday objects.
But though his sculpture is based on his observation, Orozco's photographs invite you to do the observing, to look as closely at a scene as he has, until you find that impeccable equilibrium of content and formal interest that he seems to achieve effortlessly.
Orozco can achieve that equilibrium even in the most abject of places. In "Pinched Ball (Pelota Ponchada)," a collapsed, dirty soccer ball lying on asphalt gently enfolds a curving body of water, its glassy black surface pristine and unbroken. The sensual quality of water appears repeatedly in these works, as in "From Roof to Roof (De Techo a Techo)," where standing water on a flat roof becomes a serene reflecting pool, a bit of Zen in the midst of a decaying Mexican neighborhood.
Alongside the more sensual and meditative photographs are others that foreground humor. In the aptly titled "Cats and Watermelons (Gatos y Sandias)," Orozco positioned several cat-food cans on a display of watermelons, turning the ordinary pile of fruit into what looks like a heaping mound of bloated cats. It's a funny stunt and a funny picture, a kind of Duchampian transformation of the banal, a kidding commentary on the absurdity of consumables.
But then there's the persistent formal interest of the picture. "Cats and Watermelons," looked at another way, is an absorbing composition, a symphony of circles and ovals (favorite formal devices for Orozco), a harmony in green.
Much of Orozco's talent lies in his ability to do both these things, to observe the banal and to bring out its formal brilliance. And as he shows these things to us, he makes us more aware of the patterns, rhythms and forms that attend even the most humble aspects of life, like time spent in waiting rooms, like buying cat food, like taking a walk.
Gabriel Orozco: Currents 76 is at the St. Louis Art Museum through Feb. 7.
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